Linda Bellos OBE talks racism, Thatcher and trans with Sam Bennett

“My growing-up years were spent as a socialist and not-very-good musician,” Linda Bellos tells me. Though “very much into classical music”, she realised by the end of the sixties she wasn’t going to make it as a professional clarinettist. “It was a rational recognition of my skills,” states the activist, reckoning – as she did at the time – “that lots of very nice, white, middle-class people were being kind to me and wanting to support me. But in the real world I wasn’t good enough; if you’re going to be a professional musician you have to be pretty outstanding, and I wasn’t.” There is a clarinet sitting in her office, though she “can’t remember how to get into second register. I will take lessons again in due course,” she says, “but don’t hold your breath. I really would like to, but it’s not uppermost in my mind.”

That position is filled by the completion of her memoirs: “I’m re-editing page 14 as we speak. I do feel a need to record my thoughts and feelings, as opposed to somebody else – usually a white, upper-middle-class man – writing a book or a couple of paragraphs of what they think, which is nothing to do with the truth.” Her father and mother died 18 and 20 years ago respectively. Looking at their lives as an adult, compared with how she viewed them as a child, has been “quite good, quite moving”. It’s been “interesting” recounting her politics; “how I came to the views I have come to, the positions I have taken, the arguments and fights I’ve been in”.

Photo: Ms Jane Campbell / Shutterstock

Photo: Ms Jane Campbell / Shutterstock

Her relationship with the Labour Party features, though “not desperately”. She was an active member in the mid-eighties, this later declined and she “became much more involved in Black activism, working with Bernie Grant on reparations – a campaign I still care passionately about”. As well as being black and gay, she’s also Jewish, and I wonder how she views the antisemitism row currently taking place within the Labour Party. She goes first to Margaret Hodge, who has cited Jeremy Corbyn as the problem. “I don’t remember her shouting very loudly in the early 1980s when the same issues came up.” She’s “not happy with the attacks on Corbyn”, seeing them as attacks “on his politics in general” as opposed to antisemitism. “He’s apologised for things he’s said wrongly, and he’s right to apologise, and I think we would be right to accept his apology rather than keep hounding him.” She then turns her attention to the figure Corbyn regularly faces across the despatch box: “Look what that idiot’s doing even today. What’s she called? Our prime minister – couldn’t run a bloody bath, let alone a country.”

We discuss the racism of 1980s Britain. “We had Thatcher in power,” the former Lambeth Borough Council leader says, “the police were disgusting, [it was taken] for granted that black people were parasites, criminals, every negative thing. The actions towards black people were appalling. I’m talking about the discrimination in the workplace, on the street, particularly [towards] young black men. I had a son (still do as a matter of fact, he’s in his forties now), I was seeing it, I was seeing it with my friends’ sons, it was appalling and I said so.”

Photo: David Fowler / Shutterstock

Photo: David Fowler / Shutterstock

Did you know Thatcher? I ask. “Not personally.” And had no wish to? “I have nothing positive to say about her. Nothing at all. I thought she was utterly appalling for this country. Look what she did to the miners,” she points out, then highlighting “the selling of council property, which has meant huge numbers of working-class people who can’t get somewhere decent to live, who are paying exorbitant rents, who have to make a choice between feeding their children and buying them shoes. That’s in today’s civilised society, and those politics came in with a storm with Thatcher. I remain angry; it’s not hard to bring me to tears when I remember what was happening to millions of working-class people.

“Yes and no,” she responds when I say helping to launch Black History Month in 1987 must be one of her proudest moments. Prior to launching LGBT History Month in 2005, Sue Sanders asked her for a bit of guidance. “She knew I had a key role in BHM. I advised her to ensure that she or others kept control of it, because for BHM anybody could do anything, and they have, and some of them have made a mockery of the idea.” As well as leadership, if she were assisting in its launch again, she’d see it had modest funding – “It doesn’t have to have millions of pounds.” Though she believes the initiative should be led by black people, “Black history isn’t just for black people, many white people are interested in the history of the people who have come to this country and made a contribution. Black history should be for all of us; a bit like LGBT History Month, we don’t just do it for us, we want the world to hear what we have to say, don’t we?”

Soon the time comes to mention the controversy she’s involved in regarding trans laws – I can’t not. “I’m glad you are,” she says, “because if you didn’t bring it up, I was going to.” So what is her stance, which saw her uninvited from speaking at Cambridge University last year? “I don’t hate trans,” she tells me. “I hate the current policy, and the new politics of trans which are vile, anti-woman and anti-feminist.”

She has one grandson who she’s seen “being pushed into that category called ‘maleness’ whether he likes it or not, and I care as much as a mother and as a grandmother for gender being pushed out the bloody window. So you’ll understand why I’m not in favour of those trans people reinforcing gender. I want to get rid of it, as do most feminists. It’s gender we’re attacking, and this new trans lobby is seeking to impose gender as we seek to destroy it.”

I question whether her comments on this issue actually go against equality, something she has spent her career fighting for. “No, wait a minute,” she says. “What they’re doing is going against the concept of equality. I’m not saying they shouldn’t exist, I am saying they cannot speak for women. If you grew up as a girl, you had periods etc., how can that just be dismissed by somebody who grew up as a man, telling me that I’m not a woman but they are? They’re a woman and I’m a TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist]? Do you think that’s sensible, rational?” Possibly not, I answer, but I would also say that even if trans women enjoyed privileges as men, they can still enjoy privileges as women, can’t they? She laughs, “Well, you can enjoy privileges as black then.” She resumes: “Cut your pay, make sure you’re sexually molested in the street, raped – that’s the advantages of women. Tell me it’s not happening. Tell me women aren’t raped.” Of course I can’t. Lives have been lost in the battle for feminist demands, she states. “It’s not a game, it’s not about what bloody dress you wear, this is not about fashion, this is life and death stuff. Throughout the world, girl children are being killed because they’re girls. And if I sound angry, it’s because life and death is important.”

For her the end goal of this dispute is “clarity about sexuality and gender. Gender characteristics are the things men made up. We had our hair long, we’ll do the dishes, we won’t be paid, and we’ll have sex whenever they want. These are the things that were in law in this country until feminists fought against them, and now they’ve come up through the lens of trans. It’s completely oppressive to women. I’m not sure it does much for gay men either, but that’s your business to deal with.”

There’s another leg to the ongoing debate: at the time of talking she is soon to appear in court due to an alleged threat of violence towards trans women at the event ‘We Need To Talk About The GRA [Gender Recognition Act]’. “I said I would defend myself if attacked, and that’s been taken to mean, ‘I am going to attack somebody.’ I think I was supposed to cave in when this threat of prosecution faced me. I wouldn’t say I’m laughing, but it would be fair to say I have met and dealt with more than this piffling claim.” As a yellow tit that’s flown in through her office window flies back out, “I’m not an advocate of violence,” she asserts, “but I am able and willing to defend myself physically if attacked. I shall be 68 at the end of the year, I’ve got arthritis and epilepsy, I can’t run as fast as I used to, but I’ll still put my bloody fists up if need be.”

A fair bit going on then – indeed, her nailing of second register may well be some time.

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